Gen X Review InsomniaTerror is knowing the guy standing next to you at McDonalds may have a human head in his refrigerator, love the sound of flesh being ripped or may have simply bludgeoned his lover to death over who controls the remote control. The real monster isn’t the dead thing crawling out of its grave, but the average guy letting his personal demons control his actions.

These are the things that keep sane people awake into the wee hours of the night.
The superb new film Insomnia plays on these fears, creating a world where madness, violence and crime are just another suburb of the ordinary. It’s pretty easy to lose track of your moral high ground in the early hours between morning and midnight, when dreams and reality seem to bleed into one another.

Los Angeles detective Will Dormer (Al Pacino) is not ready for the extreme experiences that await him when he is sent to a small Alaskan town to investigate the murder of a 17-year-old girl. Alaska doesn’t look much like the Heart of Darkness, but Dormer isn’t prepared for the ambiguity of this environment, where perpetual summer daylight makes it impossible to even determine the time of day.

When his partner is killed in the line of duty -- sort of -- Dormer confronts a murderer who seems to know too much. Walter Finch (Robin Williams) tells him that he understands the pressures of being hunted and sympathizes with the detective, who faces an internal investigation in Los Angeles. Finch blackmails Dormer into helping him, but the subtle manipulations between these two characters make it difficult to understand who is using whom.

The relationship between cop and criminal is complex, especially at the highest level of development. The genius detective is actually more closely aligned to the master criminal than the average citizen. Just as some firefighters invariably become pyromaniacs, members of the law enforcement sometimes lose track of the moral code that binds them and begin seeing only the challenge of investigation.

The cop has to think like the criminal in order to understand his next move. This means envisioning a world where murder is justifiable and Dormer is close to accepting Finch’s moral relativism. He didn’t mean to murder the girl, Finch says, it was an accident and it could have happened to anyone. And, really, Finch isn’t alien evil personified, isn’t a Hannibal Lector genius with inhuman tastes or a Jason killing machine bred to dismember promiscuous teenagers -- he’s a regular guy just like Dormer.

He’s absolutely ordinary all right, except he has beaten a young girl to death. For Dormer murder is pretty mundane and banal, and most violent crimes are committed by people just like you or I -- pushed, led, or compelled to do monstrous things.

Metaphorically, Alaska is the moral twilight for Dormer. Day and night have no meaning in this world, where a sickly pale light makes time irrelevant. Distinctions are as vague as cloudy outlines of the ocean under a blanket of fog and Dormer’s sense of right vacillates uncomfortably. Should he let his conscious lapse and allow this one crime to slide in order to keep his other cases secure, or should he do the right thing and sacrifice the past in favor of the morally responsible decision today?

Alaska is a kind of purgatory for the hot-shot city detective, a chance to redeem or lose his soul. His reputation is on the line and Finch repeatedly tells him that his life’s work is worth more than this one case. However, if Finch is correct -- that Dormer’s past is more important than his present -- than justice doesn’t really signify much. It is just doing the most morally responsible thing possible at any given time.

Pacino gives a powerful performance as a man struggling to discover his own ethical backbone. Although fatigued and anxious, Dormer has a kind a shrewd understanding of the meaning of crime. He is a man who has seen too much ugliness, pain and violence to believe in the inherent good of man, but lives by a higher code of honor himself.

It’s too bad that Williams doesn’t get more screen time, because he brings an interesting ambivalence to his role: Is Finch playing Dormer or does he believe in what he’s saying?  He is a complex version of the everyman, a chilling reminder of what happens when ordinary people permit themselves to cross moral boundaries and do the unthinkable.

Insomnia a clever, stylish journey into madness. Just remember to bring your own moral compass and stay close to those you trust.


Attack of the Clones

Gen X Review Attack of the ClonesDid you ever wonder why some people travel to distant parts of the universe just to see themselves reflected in the mirror of an alien moon?

The first Star Wars series was a boomer fairy tale. It reassured children of the ’60s that there was an ultimate, good Force in the universe and helped them internalize the Hero’s Journey from child to master. It spoke to the chaos and madness of the 1960s and early ’70s as a kind of big-screen fable.

The military machine would fall, brothers and sisters, if we all just had faith. Just like Woodstock, baby!
It gushed a kind of goofy New Age ideology that kids, idiots and acid heads loved. The acting was generally pretty poor, the character development was weak, plotting uneven at times and some of the special effects lacked flash – and yet it was great somehow. Special, even.

I don’t think the new Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, could be called special. There won’t be another film like 1977’s Star Wars and Clones isn’t a new-and-improved Star Wars. I hate to be the one to tell the current generation that they aren’t going to get the Star Wars experience – whatever that means – but Attack of the Clones isn’t it. Clone is a fine little distraction, but it doesn’t have the kind of spiritual relevance of the original.

Psychological mumbo-jumbo is not magic and Vader is not just a Robocop clone dressed in bondage gear.

Attack of the Clones takes place 10 years after The Phantom Menace, but not much has really changed. The pesky Trade Federation is still making trouble, the galaxy is still mostly a loose collection of independent states assembled around a republic, and Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregbor) don’t look as though they’ve aged a day. Of course Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has grown into a man virtually overnight, but maybe there’s something in his genes that accelerate the aging process.

When several assassination attempts on Padmé are barely thwarted, the Jedi knights decide to track the conspiracy back to its source. Anakin and Padmé head back to her world in secret, with the young Jedi acting as her bodyguard, and Obi-Wan flies off in search of a mysterious bounty hunter on the dark side of the galaxy.

The plot congeals a bit when Obi-Wan discovers that a clone army has been manufactured on the order of a high Jedi knight, now deceased. Anakin and Padmé, meanwhile, have blundered into a hive of Trade Federation loyalists led by a haughty ex-Jedi played by Christopher Lee, of all people.
This is the worst acting this side of a Russ Myers film and the dialog and the special effects are often even worse.

(Although even I admit to feeling a little giddy watching a computer-generated muppet kick butt.)

There’s no excuse for this level of incompetence, especially when movie-goers are accustomed to actors such as Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood in their science fiction / fantasy blockbusters. I know that we’re supposed to pay attention to the overarching storyline, but these characters speak so flatly that you wonder why Lucas didn’t just film the story boards and save the labor costs.

The action scenes are not good enough to recommend the film, especially when much of the special effects are so lackluster. Characters turn fuzzy in bright rooms, threatening to pixalate spontaneously. I started for the door several times, intent of having the wingnut in the projector booth focus the film, but my wife caught me every time. “It’s suppose to look that way,” she said. I’m told this has something to do with the film having been shot in digital film, but I really expect better from the brainchamber of Lucas, inc.

The cliff-hanger cuts and goofy dissolves also seem out of place in this dark, mechanized world. I accept this kind of special effect as kitsch or true admiration for the serial films of the past, but here they only seem to interrupt the pace of the confusion and point out how different this film is than the first three.

Where the first three films were about the making of a man, the last two have been about making a monster. The first Star Wars series was Freud re-imagined by Joseph Campbell, while the last two movies are the gospel according to Sigmund. The move from a Hero’s Journey – from novice to enlightenment – to an expression of Oedipal conflicts hasn’t been easy and those searching for wonder had better go rent the originals.

Welcome to Sigmund’s world: Mysticism, wonder and magic are illusions in this world. The Force is as utilitarian as a light switch and the Jedi code is nothing but another empty rallying call. Freud’s world is strangely bereft of charm, beauty and grace, and kids won’t leave the theaters as I did, believing in an invisible power that tied the universe together. Watching Yoda manipulate blue streaks of light, they will see another empty display of material force, a big light show of special effects.

There’s no mythic backbone to this story, no everyman in search of the meaning of life and balance. Occasionally the uncanny appears as a reminder that we’re dealing with psychological, not spiritual truths, but these phantasms are vaguely troubling, not wonderful.

In place of the admittedly soft-brained “architypical story of man,” this Star Wars gives us a little boy unable to deal with his identification with his mother. An orphan, he creates an image of his father, first in C3PO, an emasculated robot, then in the novice Jedi Obi-Wan, and finally, as we all know, in the despotic presence of the emperor. In order to wish away the feminine inside of him, young Skywalker brutally cuts it from his imagination, banishes it from his psyche, and remakes his body into the representation of raw power.

This petty drama plays itself out in a materialist’s world, where only real, physical power can be accepted. This is, in a way, a total renunciation of the first three films, which blabbered on and on about faith, love and liberty. This new (old) world is firmly planted in the real where cynicism, manipulation and power rule – everything must be displayed, because only seeing is believing. The very structure and narrative of the film mimics this world view: The special effects are showy, the love scenes predictable, the battles militaristic and the characters flat.

This is a world of three-dimensional shadows.

Flesh itself has become strangely mechanistic, caught in the matrix of rational, scientific thought. It’s not a question of integration anymore – of the poor fiend losing his humanity to the machine – but of replacement. The clone is not strictly speaking artificial, but its genesis itself is reflection of the thought process that creates death stars, nuclear bombs and mini-vans.

Attack of the Clones shows an unhealthy preoccupation with fatherhood and masculinity. The clone is masculine reproduction at its best. There’s nothing secret, hidden or mysterious in DNA and the fact that genesis can be torn apart, analyzed and reconfigured must make a lot of misogynist scientists pretty happy. Finally, no more having to deal with the uncertainty of birth! You can almost see the future Vader chuckling in his space suit while wanking off to reruns of Temptation Island.

Luke Skywalker was told the secret of the Force was “letting go” to the openness and possibility of the universe. In this new film everything is controlled. This feeling of oppression is sad, especially since it seems to be embedded in the film, as though it was woven into the fabric of the piece by its author.

I’m concerned about George Lukas. He seems to have lost his soul.

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